Today I am completing my series of posts about the different instruments of the woodwind family by featuring the saxophone. This is an instrument that I have at home. I want to learn to play it and can play a little bit, but haven’t quite had the time yet. Maybe next year.
What Is the Saxophone And How Do You Play It?
- The saxophone is a member of the woodwind family of instruments. Generally woodwind instruments were, at one point in their history, were made out of wood. The saxophone is the exception.
- It is a much more modern instrument than any of the others that I have previously featured having been invented only in the late 1800s. That sounds like a long time ago, but it’s really not at all in terms of the invention of musical instruments.
- The saxophone is made mainly from brass with a plastic mouthpiece.
- It is a reed instrument, using a single reed similar to the clarinet.
- Someone who plays the saxophone is called a saxophonist, saxophone player or sax player.
- To play the saxophone a player will blow through the mouthpiece, making the reed vibrate. The vibrating air then gets pushed through the tubing of the saxophone and comes out of the end of the wide bell shape at the end to make a sound.
- Various things can affect the sounds produced, including the air pressure the saxophonist uses, the thickness of the reed they use, the way they place pressure on the reed when blowing air through the mouthpiece, and of course pressing down the keys on the instrument changing the shape of the tubing for the vibrating air to pass through.
- There are 8 different sizes of saxophone available, but only 4 that are commonly used: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass Saxophone. The most popular are the Alto and Tenor Saxophones.
History of the Saxophone
- The saxophone was invented by musical instrument maker and inventor Adolphe Sax, hence its name. He and his family worked on many woodwind instruments, in particular improving the design of the clarinet. This explains the similarities of the saxophone with other wind instruments, especially the clarinet.
- While this post is about the instrument, its inventor had an interesting life. He was an extremely accident prone child. Reading about his accident filled childhood, it is very surprising that Adolphe Sax survived into adulthood! Some of the incidents he was involved in include: falling down 3 flights of stairs; being hit in the head by a slate tile; swallowing a large needle; being found face down and unconscious in a river, drinking poisonous substances on more than 1 occasion; falling on a burning stove and as if that was not enough, there was a container of gunpowder next to the stove which exploded!
- The saxophone was invented after Sax’s move to Paris in the 1840s. The first time he played his new instrument it had not been patented yet. Sax was concerned that someone might try to copy his design before he had been able to patent it, so he played it from behind a curtain. The instrument was patented shortly after in 1846.
- The saxophone is an instrument that is very much associated with jazz music, although at first people preferred the clarinet to this new musical instrument. It soon caught on and you will now find the saxophone in many different styles of music from jazz, especially New Orleans Jazz, to rock and pop music.
- The saxophone does feature in Classical music in compositions from Late Romantic period and 20th Century compositions.
- The saxophone also features a lot in concert bands, marching bands, military bands and other more contemporary ensembles.
- Famous saxophonists include: Gene Ammons, founder of the Chicago School of Tenor Sax, Coleman Hawkins who was probably the first tenor sax player, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Kamasi Washington, Branford Marsalis, Charlie Parker and YolanDa Brown.
- Other famous people who also happen to play saxophone include: Comedians Hugh Laurie, Bob Hope, Cricket Captain Alastair Cook and Former US President Bill Clinton.
- Adolphe Sax did have plans to make a very large saxophone, the subcontrabass, but he didn’t manage it during his lifetime. The instrument was finally built in 2013 and is an enormous 7 feet 5 inches tall.
- In contrast, there is a very small, sopranissimo saxophone which is just 12 inches tall.
- The World’s most expensive saxophone is probably the Grafton saxophone played by Charlie Parker that was sold to the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City in the USA. This saxophone was bought by the Museum in 1994 for $93,000, which in today’s money would probably be around $177,800.
Playing the saxophone
If you want to hear what the saxophone can sound like in the hands of an expert player, here is a video of the marvellous YolanDa Brown (check out her Band Jam on CBeebies, which is an absolutely excellent programme about music for young children):
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